In the last post I outlined the unreserved joy of writing romantic fiction for the first time but I glossed over the complexities. Please note – some of the opportunities that come your way may require big decisions….
Decision One – Do I change my story?
My first novel is a Pride and Prejudice type love story set in a hospice. My main protagonist is a junior doctor and the love interest is the wealthy son of a dying patient. So far so good, but issues already on the table are professional accountability, conflict of interest and compromised doctor-patient relationship. Conflict is good in a novel, in fact it is probably the only essential component of any story. If it was all, boy meets girl, quite fancies her, she quite fancies him, they get married, the end – most people wouldn’t pick up their kindle. But multi-title romantic fiction publishers like their conflict to be a little less ethically fraught, and perhaps more reliably formulaic. This is not a bad thing – the romance genre very much does what it says on the tin, and a happy ever after is essential.
So, decision number one was, do I scrap the idea and pursue a more conventional medical romance plot line? (Dashing cosmetic surgeon who fears rejection meets feisty but devastatingly beautiful scrub nurse etc, etc).
No. I liked my original idea and if I was beginning with a potentially controversial plot line, no matter. I pressed on.
Decision Two – Do I change my setting?
Later, I had some feedback that perhaps a hospice was a ‘hard sell’ as a setting for a romance. I disagreed of course, what better place could there be to set a love story? All human emotion is here, strong feelings, big gestures, remorse, guilt, reconciliation and, above all, love. But it’s hard to disagree with an agent who is basically telling you in a very kind way that she’s not sure if she could place your book because of its setting. That’s a bit of feedback you have to take seriously. Interestingly this particular agent changed her mind, but I could easily have chosen to rip up the original manuscript and set the romance in an orange grove in Tuscany.
Some of this is bloody-mindedness – I don’t hold with the idea that my creative work is my ‘baby’ and that for others to frown upon its perfect form is abhorrent and unacceptable. I welcome criticism – genuinely – because criticism from the writing community usually comes in the form of high quality, politely-delivered advice. Even the rejections when they come are terribly, terribly kind and earnest. You can almost hear the eggshells being tiptoed upon as the agent or publisher gently treads around the writerly ego. And compared to the kind of language some of my patients use, or some of my children use from time to time, editorial feedback is milk and honey. But – at this stage in my writing life I didn’t have anything to prove. I didn’t need to make radical changes to my plot or setting because I was happy to keep on sending it out and testing the water.
If I had continued to hit brick-wall after brick-wall and everyone had said the same, then I may have changed my mind – but nobody was depending on my selling books to bring in food for the table – nobody had whispered on their death bed, ‘Publish a book, Nancy. In my memory….‘ (last gasping breath) ‘Do it for me…‘ – so I had no pressure. I could plod along with my little book, my little plot line and my unexpectedly romantic setting, for as long as I wanted. My two big decisions – whether to change my protagonists and make the romance more formulaic, and whether to alter the setting to make it an easier sell, both resulted in a no, not yet.
Decision Three – Do I sign a deal I’m not happy with?
Along this route I also had another big decision to throw into the mix – do I sign a contract for a publishing deal I feel uncomfortable about? (I suspect the more perspicacious amongst you will have spotted that the answer is no).
I won’t go into specifics here – it would not be fair on the company or those very happy authors who are published by them – but my main cause for concern was that this particular publisher refused point blank to deal with an author who had an agent. Now, I didn’t have an agent at the time they made the offer, and I know that many digital-first publishers and imprints work happily with un-agented writers, but to have someone refuse to work with an agented author struck me as odd – like saying you weren’t allowed your lawyer to accompany you into the police interrogation.
I took advice and joined the Society of Authors https://societyofauthors.org/join and it was THE BEST DECISION I EVER MADE. They knew I was being put under pressure to make a decision (again, not ideal for a future working relationship) and they read through the contract in record time, emailing me a thorough and detailed report a mere forty-eight hours after I’d joined. They suggested that I’d be better self-publishing than signing this contract; waiving my rights and tying myself into a situation where I had no control over my work, and no option to duck out.
And I think this is where we come to the crux of the matter. The reason that some unscrupulous people in the industry have been able to take advantage of writers is because we are all desperate to be published, to say ‘someone else thinks my book has merit‘. This is where vanity publishers come in, the sharks who ask you as the writer, to pay them to publish your book. These are the real cowboys – whereas the company offering me the deal were, and still are, a completely legit organisation who I’m sure have brought writerly happiness to thousands.
The upside of self-publishing is that you are the boss – the downside is that you have to believe yourself capable of being the boss and having the time, money and inclination to promote your book to the masses. But to have someone in authority at the SoA put it in those distinct terms was immeasurably helpful. If I signed I would still have to do most of the leg-work in terms of promotion but the company would get a far heftier wedge of my profits than standard publishing contracts take. So I declined. Which, with hind-sight was brave, but at the time felt potentially stupid, like I had a really inflated opinion of myself. It is hard to say, ‘thanks for your offer of publishing fame and glory, but no thanks.’ I’d like to say that I did so in the clear knowledge that it was the right thing, but in reality I was crippled with doubt for weeks.
And then I thought, better start subbing to agents, seeing as I’ve made such a bloody song and dance about needing one…..